This year was the first time the boys had experienced Christmas in France. It was an opportunity to do things a bit differently, being away from home, living in someone else’s house, visiting others and sharing the Christmas festivities with French friends.
It helps that Christmas in France is in the winter – with the dark and the cold, it fits all the prevailing stereotypes of the season and actually feels like Christmas!
If you look, there are signs of the ‘Christmas’ story everywhere. Although France is not perhaps as strongly religious as it once was, churches are everywhere and most are lovingly maintained, in the smallest of hamlets as much as in the cities.
France (and probably most of Europe) also ‘does’ Christmas far more comprehensively than New Zealand in my observation. The Christmas markets are a serious business, and a lot of planning, resources and loving effort are put into the decorations. The Christmas market in Quillan filled the gymnasium and surrounding car park with art, craft and specialty food stalls, with a visit from Father Christmas and local bands playing. It was packed.
How would Father Christmas find us, Nick wondered, being away from our usual home? Fortunately Santa was spotted flying on his clementine sleigh, on his way over Africa…
We headed off for our Christmas holidays as soon as school finished, staying with friends in the Vaucluse – the heart of Peter Mayle territory – on our way further East.
We were very privileged to be able to spend Christmas itself with long-standing French friends in the northern Jura, in a small village close to the Swiss Border. This is a village that once centred on farming. The famed Comte cheese was produced in the farm nearby. Cows graze in the fields, to a chorus of cowbells. Our friends’ family have owned a house here in the village since 1977 and have gradually restored the house and barn. Formerly the family holiday home, it’s now lived in permanently, and wider family gather for holidays.
Here, the spirit of Christmas is alive and well, and decorations are also taken seriously. Handmade trees, wreaths, strong lights and decorations adorn every surface to which various family members have contributed.
On Christmas Eve, the queue for the buche de noel and Christmas bread orders was out of the door and round the corner of the local boulangerie! Fresh batches of buches of all types were being brought out every few minutes to meet demand.
Following local tradition, after the Christmas Eve service, and a light (and late) meal, we placed our shoes under the tree on Christmas Eve, in the hopes of a visit from Saint Nicholas. On Christmas morning – only after the cowbell had been rung – first the children, then the adults, opened their presents.With ten ‘children’ ranging in age from 3 to 18, and eight adults, it was a squeeze but everybody seemed to find the right pile.
On Christmas Day, catering was for 23 including visiting cousins. A folding table and benches were rented from the Mairie for the princely sum of three euros. The children were accommodated at one table, and the adults at another, no problem. The dining table stretched the length of the dining and living area.
We were treated to all the French delicacies and local specialties, lovingly prepared by various members of the family.
On Boxing Day, in recovery, a few of us went to visit the most incredible, detailed nativity scene, set up in the church at Morteau. It’s an itinerant Swiss nativity scene, for the first time on display in France. The amount of work involved is mind blowing.
And now, back ‘home’ in Quillan, thanks to friends for their generous hospitality, and ‘Bonne Annee’ from us to all of you.